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Virginia Tech alert system faster than UI

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | DECEMBER 09, 2011 7:20 AM

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Students and employees at Virginia Tech University knew about a gunman on campus just minutes after local law enforcement were called.

That's a sharp contrast to a similar system at the University of Iowa. Officials here released HawkAlert following the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. The UI has used the alert system at least three times — including once last month — in which the notifications were delayed or inaccurate.

Law enforcement in Blacksburg, Va. say they received reports about an armed suspect opening fire on campus shortly before 12:30 p.m. local time Thursday. By 12:36, officials had sent out a VT Alert notifying the campus of the danger.

By the day's end, officials reported two dead, including one police officer. Neither the officer nor the alleged gunman had been identified on Thursday night. Campus was on lockdown much of the day Thursday until officials lifted the alert around 4:30 p.m.

Virginia Tech officials developed VT Alert in 2007 after a gunman killed 32 people on campus before killing himself. The system hasn't been completely flawless — it misreported the location of a robbery earlier this year, according to the Collegiate Times — but university officials say the system has worked well overall.

"The current system is very robust — it has many communication channels," Larry Hincker, a university spokesman, told the Collegiate Times this week.

Officials at Everbridge, which developed the VT Alert system, said the system is accessible to administrators through computers or mobile devices. Administrators also have immediate access through a log-in process to collect responses and data from the alert.

"Users can access it at anytime," said Annell Del Rio, an Everbridge representative. "It's basically at their fingertips."

In contrast to the relatively smooth operation of the Virginia Tech alert system, the UI's HawkAlert has seen several kinks.

Last month, for instance, university officials issued an alert more than an hour after local law enforcement learned of a possibly armed suspect near campus. Shortly after the alert was issued, authorities located the man more than 30 miles away. No weapon was found on the man.

In December 2010, notice of an inmate who escaped from UI Hospitals and Clinics was delivered to students 10 hours after the man escaped.

And in 2008, a HawkAlert about a possible gunman on campus was sent to students. In fact, local resident Steve Sueppel had killed his family and himself, didn't have a gun, and wasn't near campus.
UI officials have defended HawkAlert, but they said they're going to make improvements.

"Getting a message out to more than 50,000 people in a very short time is a challenge, and the HawkAlert system is still the best system we have found thus far," UI President Sally Mason told The Daily Iowan last month. "But we're always looking at — is there a better way to do this? Is there a system that is being designed or developed that could do a better job than the HawkAlert system can?"

Daily Iowan Editor Adam B Sullivan contributed to this report.


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